August 21 – Swarm Outside

Today’s factismal: Dragonflies swarm either to feed or when they migrate to another area. A single swarm may have more than 1,000 individual dragonflies.

It is no secret; dragonflies are cool. Not only are they the fastest flying insect, they eat mosquitoes along with butterflies, ants, and wasps. But one of the coolest things about dragonflies is that sometimes they swarm in huge numbers; a single swarm may have more than 1,000 individuals flitting about.

A dragonfly at the Brazos Bend National Wildlife Refuge (My camera)

A dragonfly at the Brazos Bend National Wildlife Refuge
(My camera)

But why would dragonflies group together? Most species are very territorial, simply because having too many dragonflies trying to eat too few insects means that everyone goes hungry. However, if the area has an unusual abundance of one of the insects that dragonflies prey on, then a swarm could happen. The individual dragonflies are too busy stuffing themselves to worry about arguing over who owns the area (sort of like neighbors at a barbeque). Another reason that dragonflies may band together is if they need to migrate to a new area because the ponds that they breed in have dried up or because all of the prey has vanished. As is the case with other animals that group together when they migrate, the swarming behavior provides the dragonflies with some measure of protection from things that think they are tasty and may also provide them with aerodynamic advantages. But as soon as the migration is over or the extra prey is eaten, the dragonflies go back to being territorial and everyone heads back for his own patch of pond.

A dragonfly at the Atwater Prairie Chicken Preserve (My camera)

A dragonfly at the Atwater Prairie Chicken Preserve
(My camera)

Because dragonfly swarms happen infrequently and for such short times, very little is known about them. But you can help! If you ever see a swarm of dragonflies, flit over to the Dragonfly Swarm Project and tell them about your swarm along with anything else that you noticed about the area. You’ll help researchers learn more about these magnificent critters and get to watch dragonflies – win-win!

August 20 – A Lot Of Brass

Today’s Factismal: Even though the saxophone is made out of brass, it is classified as a woodwind.

If you are an average person, then you probably don’t think much about musical instruments. The piano, the harp, the guitar – for most of us, they’ve always been there. But musicians know better. Every musical instrument had to be invented at some time by some person. The invention could happen when someone tries to duplicate an existing instrument electronically, as Moog did with the synthesizer. It could happen when someone notices an unusual sound being produced by something with another use, as happened with Theremin’s eponymous invention. Or it could happen when someone tries to combine the best parts of two different instruments, as Sax did with the saxophone.

Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone (and many other instruments) (Image courtesy Famous Belgians)

Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone (and many other instruments)
(Image courtesy Famous Belgians)

Sax was a musician living in Paris, who made a living by building musical instruments. His specialty was woodwinds and brass instruments and he had achieved a minor level of fame for some improvements he made to the bass clarinet. But Sax had noticed that there was a problem with most woodwinds: either they had a wide range but were quiet or they had a limited range but were loud. He decided to fix this by taking the mouthpiece of a clarinet (the most versatile of the woodwinds) and marrying it to the larger horn of an oboe (the loudest of the woodwinds). He tinkered with the design for a bit, including making them straight or curved depending on the register, until he found the right combination and revealed it to the world as the Saxophone.

Originally, he made saxophones out of wood. But as anyone who has priced a Stradivarius can attest, working with wood can be very expensive. Fortunately for Sax, a new process for stamping forms out of metal using the hydraulic press had just been invented. By adapting his design to a metal form, Sax was able to bring down the price of his new instrument which made it popular and him rich. Unfortunately, he also made a lot of enemies who attacked his patents and twice drove him into bankruptcy. Nevertheless, his instrument lives on as one of the most popular ways to make music ever invented.

If you’d like to see if you have what it takes to be a musician, then why not take the Perfect Pitch Test? These scientists are trying to determine why some people (like Florence Henderson) have the ability to determine any note by ear and other people (like me) couldn’t carry a tune if it were in a bucket.

August 19 – Say cheese!

Today’s factismal: It is National Photography Day – go be a shutter bug!

Ah, photography! Just as the vinyl record made musicians out of those who couldn’t play an instrument, the camera has turned those who can’t draw into artists. (For the record, I can neither sing nor play an instrument nor draw. I’m a triple threat!) Though early photographs took eight hours of exposure to create an image (which is why they are primarily of windows and bowls of fruit), today anyone with a smartphone has a camera that can snap amazing images in a fraction of a second.

My favorite vacation picture (My camera)

My favorite vacation picture
(My camera)

And that’s where the science comes in. You see, we don’t just use photographs to record trips to Disneyland or awkward high school moments. We also use them to identify plants and landforms from space and to track migrating animals and to predict the weather. We can even use them to track the environment!

Using Picture Post, you can create a panorama of nine pictures (one for each cardinal or intercardinal direction and one of the sky above) and put it out where researchers can use it to track environmental changes. Even better, they’ve got tools on the website that allow you to do your own research on your photos or the pictures taken by other folks. So get out that camera and get snapping!

August 18 – Voice of Gold

Today’s factismal: The most successful opera singer of all time was Adelina Patti, who was paid $5,000 in gold before each performance.

Being an artist is a chancy thing. Your work may never be appreciated or it might be just a passing fad. And even if you do get paid, you rarely make as much as you would have digging ditches. While this can be annoying for a writer or painter, they at least have the solace that their work will endure even after they have gone (indeed, many writers and painters became famous only after they had died). But for actors and even more so for singers, the only time that their work can truly be appreciated is while they are alive because that is the only time that their work can truly be experienced.

A picture of the artist as a young lady (Image courtesy nananan)

A picture of the artist as a young lady
(Image courtesy Carte de Visite Woodburytype)

So it is always something special when an artist makes good. And nobody made better than Adelina Patti. The child of two opera singers and with three very musical siblings, Patti sang almost before she could talk. But where their careers were the usual, with periods of blissful employment interspersed between long stretches of looking for work, Patti was never unemployed except when she wanted to be. The secret to her success was her voice which was rich, full, and carried well (an important consideration in those pre-amplifier days). She first took to the stage in 1852 and within five years had become the toast of Europe and America, with concert halls vying for her presence and composers such as Verdi and Rossini creating works specifically for her. By 1865 her popularity was such that she could command $5000 in gold (the equivalent of $110,000 today) each night, payable before she sang a single note. When she sang 200 concerts in a year, she made the equivalent of $20 million!

Though her voice is gone, except for a few recordings made when she was older and her voice had matured out of its previous sweet clarity, the scores written for and about her are still around. However, many of them are only partially cataloged and lack the metadata that is needed to make them truly useful to both the casual music lover and the devoted musical historian. If you’d like to help clear up the backlog, then why not check out What’s the Score At the Bodleian?

August 17 – Wily Coyote

Today’s factismal: Cartoons notwithstanding, coyotes don’t eat roadrunners.

Though some may find it shocking, the classic Warners Brothers cartoons starring Wile E. Coyote don’t actually match what coyotes do in the wild. They don’t punch in and out of time clocks, they don’t order from Acme, and, believe it or not, they don’t eat roadrunners. That last is pretty surprising considering what a coyote will eat. As opportunistic carnivores, they will gleefully chow down on mice, prairie dogs, gophers (Mac and Tosh had better watch out!), snakes, lizards, rabbits (poor Bugs!), and birds – but not roadrunners (which are simply too fast to catch and too small to bother with). They’ll eat carrion or fruits and vegetables but prefer fresh meat.

A coyote in its natural habitat - suburbia! (Image courtesy Wild Suburbia)

A coyote in its natural habitat – suburbia!
(Image courtesy Wild Suburbia)

That lack of pickiness in their diet has made the coyote one of the most successful predators in North America. And their cleverness (even their name means “trickster”) only makes them more successful. When being hunted by a wolf, a coyote will run downhill; once the wolf has started running after it, the coyote doubles back and heads uphill. Because the wolf is much larger, it cannot turn around as quickly and the coyote can create a large enough lead to get away. They are also able to figure out many traps and have been known to open gates in order to get out livestock and to upset trashcans to get at the goodies inside.

And while many may think that coyotes only live in the desert or in the deep forest, they are increasingly at home in suburbs and even cities! Coyotes have been spotted in Seattle, Dallas, and even inside New York City. (No word on if they went to see Phantom.) Unfortunately, researchers aren’t sure just how many coyotes have made the move into the city, nor where they live. Fortunately, you can help. If you spot a coyote in your city, contact the local animal control agency. And if you live in the area around New York City, report your sighting to the folks at Wild Suburbia:

August 16 – Chomp!

Today’s factismal: The megalodon shark died out about 1.5 million years ago. No matter what the Discovery Channel says.

If there is one thing that Star Trek teaches us, it is that some sequels are worth watching (e.g., Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) but others are a waste of good popcorn (e.g., Star Trek III: The Search for Plot). This year, we’ve gotten two from the latter category. First, SyFy aired Sharknado 2: The Second One which, to be fair, spent a lot of time joking about the first one and actually had a grain of science at its root (in the same sense that a nursery rhyme might reflect politics). But then Discovery Channel doubled down on last’ years debacle and decided to re-air  Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives complete with yet more “evidence” of that the shark still “lives”.  Of course, given that the Discovery Channel’s “evidence” consists mainly of statements from scientists that were obtained under false pretenses and have been taken out of context and heavily edited, you shouldn’t place much reliance on them. To put things as bluntly as possible, the Discover Channel’s show wasn’t science, it wasn’t entertaining, and it wasn’t worth a megalodon’s copralite.

A megalodon jaw, seen from the side (My camera)

A megalodon jaw, seen from the side
(My camera)

But there’s always a bright side to this sort of nonsense, and here’s the bright side for this one: it has gotten people to talking about one of the world’s coolest sharks. Megalodon (bio-speak for “huge tooth”) is mostly known from fossils of its teeth, which are typically about the size of a dinner plate (explains the name, huh?). In addition to their teeth, fossilized megalodon skeletons have been found, thanks to the fact that they had a partially calcified skeleton instead of the pure cartilage skeleton of most sharks. Though they looked a lot like a Great White shark on steroids, they were probably more closely related to the Mako (though this is still controversial in the paleontological community).

My nephews get eaten by a megalodon (My camera)

My nephews get eaten by a megalodon
(My camera)

So how big did a megalodon get? Let’s put it this way: you’d need an aquarium the size of the Gulf of Mexico if you wanted to keep one as a pet. A full-grown megalodon was up to 60 ft long and four of them would weigh as much as a blue whale. And that’s not surprising, considering that they mostly fed on whales and any other large animal foolish enough to go swimming in their neighborhood!

A megalodon hunts his prey at the Houston Museum of Natural Science (My camera)

A megalodon hunts his prey at the Houston Museum of Natural Science
(My camera)

Unfortunately for them, their prey needed large, warm, shallow oceans to thrive. And as the climate changed over the past few million years, those places became harder to find. As a result, their prey either died off or adapted to deep water existence. And when a critter’s food source goes extinct, that critter’s end isn’t far behind. As a result, the last of the megalodons died about one and a half million years ago.

But we are still finding megalodon fossils in places like Florida, Spain, and Morocco. And we’re finding all sorts of other fossils, too! If you’d like to find some of your own, why not join PaleoQuest or your local mineralogical society?

August 15 – Sharknado 2

Today’s factismal: A “sharknado” could actually happen.

If there’s one thing that everyone agreed on last month, it was that the sequel to Sharknado was one of the dumbest things ever to air. From its cheesy title (Sharknado 2: The Second One) to its over-the-top run at the gold medal in the hamlimpics, the movie was so bad that it jumped past good and went into “my brain is down and I can’t get up!”. But what many people may not have realized is that there is a slim thread of truth hiding in the bloated mass of over-acting and cheesy special effects that was Sharknado. You see, we really could have sharks flying through the air.

The poster kind of says it all, doesn't it? (Image courtesy SyFy)

The poster kind of says it all, doesn’t it?
(Image courtesy SyFy)

If you doubt me, then go ask the people of Lajamanu, Australia, about what happened on February 25 and 26 in 2010. Live fish were flung through the air and fell all over the town, not once but twice. Actually, if you count the times this happened in 2004 and 1974, the town has been filled with flung fish four times! So what causes a fishnado? The simple answer is that nobody knows for sure. But many meteorologists think that what happens is that a tornado either forms over or crosses a lake that just happens to have fish swimming near the surface. The surface water, complete with fish, gets caught up in the waterspout and everything falls to the ground once it hits dry land and the tornado dies.

So if a tornado happened to cross a body of water and if it just happened to have a lot of small sharks (not adult Great Whites, something more like a foot-long dogfish) and if the tornado just happened to make its way back onto land before dying out, then you might get a sharknado. Maybe.

If you’d like to help meteorologists keep an eye out for the next sharknado, or even a bit of more prosaic (but far more likely) severe weather, then why not join Skywarn? They need folks like you to keep a weather eye out and help them identify and track severe weather. If you’d like to join, head on over to: